A Short History of Plumbing, Toilets, and Sanitation

In 1856, East Indian Railway Company workers summoned General Alexander Cunningham to the Indus River Valley site, where they had uncovered the ruins of an ancient city. The archaeologists who had rushed to the scene were stunned—as archaeologists digging under the auspices of the British Empire were wont to be—by the sophistication of the civilization the workers had begun to uncover. One particular point of interest was the complex system of underground brick lined sewage drains, complete with running water and rudimentary flush toilets.

To put it in different terms, these British archaeologists uncovered a civilization which had had an underground sewage system circa the third millennium BCE in the same year that the city at the seat of the British Empire—London—had begun to experience the sanitation problems which would lead to the “Great Stink” of 1858.

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“Father Thames Introducing His Offspring (Diptheria, Scrofula, and Cholera) to the Fair City of London,” originally published in the July 3, 1858 edition of Punch Magazine. Image courtesy of the Museum of London.

In the 1850s, the modern flush toilet began to replace the chamber pot in the daily waste disposal of many Londoners. This increased the volume of waste being poured into cesspits, which often overflowed into the streets, overwhelming the medieval drainage system, and emptied into the Thames. The unusual heat levels of the summer of 1858 merged with the bacteria in the sewage-filled waters of the Thames to produce a stench so overwhelming that the House of Commons nearly shut down.

Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro weren’t the only ancient cities to have a finer grasp on the intricacies of sanitation than the capital of the British Empire.

The sewage of Rome and Istanbul is still partially carried through 1000+ year old pipes, and the first inverted siphon system (u-shaped pipes for those of us who are not engineers) was put into use in the palaces of Crete over 3000 years ago. Those pipes are still in working condition. The Ancient Minoan peoples had a stone sewage system periodically flushed with clean water, and flush toilets dating to around the mid-second millennium BCE have been found in the Minoan archaeological site of Akrotiri.

In the mid-12th century CE the Arab, or possibly Kurdish, engineer Al-Jazari invented a hand-washing device which made use of flush technology (he also invented the first water supply system to be driven by gears and hydropower, and a robot boy band among other things).

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Illustration of his water-raising device from Al-Jazari’s work, The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices. Image courtesy of the Topkapi Palace Museum.

In 1596, Sir John Harington developed a forerunner to the modern toilet and had it installed in his house. He also had one installed for his godmother, Queen Elizabeth I, but she refused to use it because the noise freaked her out.

By the 1850’s, the flush toilet had become a standard fixture in the homes of the bourgeoisie, leading to many much needed updates to old and overburdened sewage systems.

And because I’ve been picking on Britain a lot in this post, I will say that a 31st century BCE hydraulic waste removal system was discovered in one of Britain’s oldest known Neolithic villages: Skara Brae, Orkney. Way to remove that waste, Skara Brae.

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